Lockdown and eating out

by | May 26, 2020 | All posts, Practice theory | 0 comments

We are told that nothing is normal, that ‘Lockdown’ has overturned life as we know it. However, beyond the apocalyptic narrative there is much speculation about what might become the ‘new normal’.

One of the many industries ravaged by the imposed restrictive measures is the restaurant industry. Low-priced fast food restaurants through to high-end fine dining establishments have been forced to close their doors, with business restricted to take-away service. While intended to be a temporary measure, companies face the prospect of closing their doors permanently as sales plummet. Asked across mainstream news outlets and social media alike is the question: “What then will become of eating out post-COVID19?”.

Ironically, our book, The Social Significance of Dining Out has been published at this time when restaurants and café’s across the nation, and indeed the world, are closed. The book emanates from a systematic comparison of interview and survey data on dining out in England in 1995 and 2015 and examines continuity and change over this 20-year period. At the outset of the book we explore who eats a main meal out, how often, and for what reason. The easy answer to each of these questions at the present time is – no one.  However, far from rendering our research irrelevant there is much from the study that can be used to understand our status quo, what its disruption means to us, and, what reasonable speculations might be made about dining out post-pandemic.

In our research we did not focus solely on restaurant meals but also examined eating at home, hosting others, and being hosted as distinct but related modes of provisioning food in order to understand how dining out is integrated into wider eating regimes. Eating at home entails ‘work’: one must shop for food, decide what to eat, prepare a meal, set the table, clear away, and wash up. One reason for visiting a restaurant is to relieve the pressure of burdensome domestic labour. Yet dining out also entails ‘work’ of a kind: forethought may be required to book a table, perhaps a change of clothes, travel to the restaurant, and the performance entailed in being both a good customer and good company for fellow diners! Enter, the takeaway.

Takeaway food has a long history in Britain, going back, at least, to medieval pie shops with the number of outlets selling fish and chips, fried British breakfast food, and sandwiches increasing through the 20th century. From the 1950s, dishes originating from Asian cuisines became available, especially ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’. Gradually, this broadened to include food items derived from other culinary traditions for casual dining: burgers, fried chicken, kebabs, pizza, and latterly tacos and sushi. Takeaways have long been used as a means of reducing the amount of time and effort in the kitchen at home and also of avoiding the formality, and expense, of dining out in a restaurant. However, in general, takeaways have been considered largely inferior to restaurant meals. A respondent in our study, on being asked where he ate out, replied ‘lots of places, the top of the range down to a takeaway’. Our survey analysis showed that people with higher levels of education and who are in the professional and managerial class have fewer takeaways. Takeaways have not then been seen as the most stylish or legitimate way to access commercial provision of cooked food.

The status of the takeaway and its role within our wider eating regimes has rapidly transformed in recent weeks under lockdown. A broad range of restaurants have adapted and responded to the imposed constraints by signing up to delivery app services, providing their own delivery, or running a socially-distanced collection service for takeaway (simultaneously, several big brands that were both eat-in and takeaway services have temporarily ceased trading altogether). With this influx of restaurants to the takeaway market, options for takeaway food have diversified. Diversification is not limited to cuisine styles but also types of establishment (and price-points) with outlets from independent cafes to fine-dining restaurants providing food to takeaway. Cuisine styles considered “exclusive” and types of restaurant previously frequented only by a minority are currently offering takeaway food. Even two Michelin star chef Simon Rogan is turning out takeaways. You might say that takeaway food has never been so stylish!

Whether this is a temporary elevation of the status of takeaways or an enduring feature is yet to be seen. However, this innovation forced by the current conditions is certainly consistent with the central findings of our research, a tension between familiarity and increased variety. First, we noted a tendency toward familiarisation and casualisation in the consumption of restaurant meals over the last 20 years. What was once considered ‘special’ has become increasingly ‘ordinary’. People have grown used to dining out and feel more comfortable than before. The new options for a takeaway under lockdown echo this tendency toward familiarisation, with dining experiences that were previously the special, exclusive remit of the restaurant now entering the domestic realm. Second, we observed a counter tendency in the restaurant meal, diversification. Cuisines, dishes and customer experiences became increasingly varied, a movement also appearing in current innovations in takeaways. Our unusual times are, in one sense, unprecedented, but in another sense reflect continuing and long-term counter trends of familiarisation and diversification.

Due to COVID19, we are presently faced with enforced change on many fronts. We joked as a research team that the first question we are asked by almost anyone inquiring about our project is “…so what has changed?”. In the face of such unexpected disruption brought on by the pandemic, it is perhaps comforting therefore to emphasise continuity and established trends in the well-established practice of eating. Our study revealed no radical ruptures or dramatic changes within the 20-year period of 1995-2015; this is in itself a ‘finding’ as it runs counter to a strong popular perception that eating out is subject to perpetual rapid mutation, whereas in fact, the more significant changes occurring in Britain happened in the decade from the late 1960s. We are inclined to believe that the disruption to ‘normal’ that we are presently experiencing has not actually made our daily lives unrecognisable and, in the longer term, will not signify a dramatic rupture.

Be that as it may, the next 12 to 18 months will undoubtedly be a challenging time for the restaurant industry. There will be a significant hiatus in demand as people’s time use in daily life is altered, many of us are likely to be reluctant to travel, anxious about public space, and short of money. A trickle of income will be generated from restaurateurs’ adaptations, including takeaways, provision of ingredients and partially prepared meals to be taken home to eat – effectively turning restaurants into grocery shops by selling produce, or rather Enoteca’s if you live in a trendy area! The eventual easing of restrictions will bring an increase in income but adhering to the 2-metre rule will be very difficult for many businesses. The income, from this changed pattern of provision, will be enough for some to pay their overheads and to weather the storm; many others will go bankrupt. We would expect demand to return within a couple of years because, as our study suggests, people really do like eating out and it is a highly sociable form of recreation which brings people together.

What is inviting about the apocalyptic-style narrative is that it allows us to believe that the elements of ‘before’ that we were unsatisfied with – at times exasperated by – could be transformed for the future. While we do not want to miss an opportunity to change practices for the better, it must also be conceded that patterns of consumption and structures of daily life remain remarkably resistant, changing only slowly over time.

That is not to say that – in the longer term – all will simply return to exactly the same ’normal’, as before. This crisis does hold the possibility of establishing something new. Disruption-induced experimentation and exploration by businesses and consumers will likely result, for a small proportion, in lasting change. The disruption engendered by the current crisis has forced people to improvise and create alternatives in place of the restaurant meal. During the next 12-18 months, the trade in takeaways and home delivery will have become more established – perhaps among a section of the population who previously were dismissive – and this will constitute (alongside supermarket ready meals) continuing competition for meals served in restaurant. Nevertheless, eating away from home will remain a very attractive thing to do. A small proportion of businesses will likely continue with an adapted business model, capitalising on a mode of operation that they may not previously have considered viable. A small proportion of the population will continue in their new eating routines despite many other aspects of their daily life returning to ‘normal’. While not radical, these small changes, when scaled across a population and a market sector, equate to noteworthy, meaningful change to the way we eat.

Jennifer Whillans is a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol. She is undertaking a research project, funded by British Academy, entitled (De)synchronisation of people and practices in working households: The relationship between the temporal organisation of employment and eating in the UK.

Jessica Paddock is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Bristol. Her research explores the interaction of everyday life practices, natural resource use, food consumption and social differentiation in the context of environmental change.

Alan Warde is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences and Professorial Fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research concerns consumption, cultural capital, food and eating.

Together they conducted the research and co-authored the book The Social Significance of Dining Out: continuity and change (Manchester University Press, 2020).

This article first appeared in Discover Society (May 2020).